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Subsidized senior housing seen as asset in West Seneca

Mary Matteson grew up on Main Street in West Seneca and worked for M&T Bank there. When she heard several years ago of plans for subsidized senior housing on the former Houghton College campus, she was excited – until she saw how the neighborhood and some local politicians were responding.

“I would drive down Union Road and I saw all those ‘not in my backyard’ signs. I couldn’t understand it,” Matteson said Friday while sitting in the community room of the now-finished building.

She blames the protests on a public misconception over what the housing project would be, and she went to meeting after meeting to speak on behalf of people like herself – seniors who had worked hard, raised their children and now needed a safe and decent place to live.

After a negative Town Board vote and a lawsuit, the courts agreed and the payoff for Matteson and dozens of other seniors came late last year, when the doors first opened at Walnut Senior Living. The 47-unit complex is operated by People Inc., and it already has more than 80 people on a waiting list. With everyone settled and the snow melted, People Inc. celebrated the project’s grand opening on Friday.

“It’s home sweet home,” said Dorrie Lewis, a smiling and upbeat tenant.

She worked for years in a local nursing home and, as a longtime West Seneca resident, is thrilled she found an affordable place to live in her community. Moving is difficult enough, she said.

“The downsizing was the hardest thing for me, physically and emotionally exhausting,” she said. “There were some things, like my mother’s kitchen set, that I hated to give up. This is a whole new lifestyle for some of us. It was hard to let go of a lot of the nicer things that you have, but it was time.”

The apartment building is the 19th and the last built by People Inc. using the discontinued federal Housing and Urban Development 202 funding for supportive housing for the elderly. The housing is for people who are at least 62 years old – Walnut has residents ages 62 to 92 – and who meet income guidelines of no more than $23,700 a year for a single person or $27,100 for a couple. Residents can own cars and other assets, and they pay a fixed percentage of their income toward their rent.

LaVerne Hoover was among the “first four” residents, moving from her house in Hamburg for something more manageable.

“I was in the house for 44 years, and I got rid of so much,” Hoover said. “I didn’t realize I had so much baggage, and I didn’t use the space.”

She did so much downsizing that she bought all new furnishings to fit her cozy new apartment, which, she said, is very 21st century, with Wi-Fi, her computer and two Nooks. Her old items also found good homes, she added.

“My kids didn’t want the things, but I have a nephew who has apartments, and he said some families move in with almost nothing, so a lot went to them,” Hoover said. “Then I gave stuff to Goodwill – bags and bags of it – and the rest I was throwing out,” she said. “But as my grandkids were carrying things out to the curb, people were driving by and they’d say ‘that looks good,’ and so the kids would put it right in their cars!”

Her only regret is unloading so many kitchen items.

“I had no idea I would have so much cupboard space here,” she said.

Every apartment has a full, open kitchen with plenty of cupboards and new appliances. There is no dining room in the project. It is independent living, not assisted housing, and most residents cook for themselves, although they also can sign up for Meals on Wheels.

The apartments have emergency pull cords in the living space and bathrooms, and the wide hallways have railings along them and plenty of room for walkers or wheelchairs.

None of the former Houghton buildings remain.

But Walnut Living manager Nicole Briggs said the property still holds memories for a few of the residents.

“Some of our people grew up here,” Briggs said. “They have stories about when they came to Bible study over here, when it was Ebenezer.”

They also have memories of shopping at Southgate Plaza, which still is open about a half-mile away over Cazenovia Creek. The Market in the Square grocery is on the near end and is popular with the residents.

“We have people who walk to Southgate every day,” Briggs said. “When we heard a Paula’s Donuts was moving in, that was big news here.”

The residents’ low-key presence seems to have soothed the fears of neighbors who, in 2010, collected 2,000 signatures on a petition to stop construction of the subsidized apartments. Among the concerns voiced then were that it would decrease property values, increase traffic and overtax public utilities.

West Seneca Town Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan, a councilwoman at the time, was among the initial opponents and voted against granting the project a special permit. But at Friday’s ribbon-cutting she said she couldn’t be more pleased with the finished project.

“For me, the problem was always about the sewers and if they could handle it, and People Inc. and the developer were great about it,” Meegan said.

She added that the neighborhood has embraced the project.

“We absolutely love it,” she said. “I think they didn’t or couldn’t visualize the project and how it would maintain the serenity of the campus. There’s no ‘rear view mirror’ now, it’s all positive.”

David J. Bonner, a former resident of nearby Gervan Drive who had objected to the apartments, said Thursday that the finished development, which includes the market-rate Park Lane Villa housing complex, is smaller than what was first proposed.

“I’ve driven by there, and it’s actually rather attractive,” Bonner said. “Looking back at it, it was well worth our effort. I think there was a happy medium reached.”

People Inc. has a waiting list of more than 700 people for its 19 senior housing projects. Agency officials hope the federal government will respond to the need, now that the HUD funding for senior housing has dried up.

HUD Field Office Director Joan Spilman and U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, attended the ribbon-cutting and voiced their support for more housing projects where seniors could be “comfortable, happy and safe.”

“I return to Washington on Tuesday, and we will start on Tuesday to try to re-fund these programs – for no other reasons than that they work,” Higgins told the gathered residents and staff.

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